Thursday, 21 April 2011

Is obesity infectious?

Is being fat something you 'catch'? That's the rather bizarre suggestion being put forward by a group of American academics. (Listen to one of them - Margaret Campbell of the University of Colorado - tell you all about it.) The studies seem to show that the mere sight of someone obese - family, friends - can encourage you to eat more, piling on the pounds personally and possibly becoming obese yourself in the process.

Now, obesity is something of particular (though not personal) interest to me. Because I happen to live in what was once declared Fat Capital of Britain. This Lincolnshire market town (which I'll call Boston, chiefly because that's its name) was found to have the highest obesity rates of anywhere in the country back in 2006. But a lot has happened since then. For a start, economic migration has brought large numbers of svelte eastern Europeans (I'm talking about the ladies here) to the Borough, and that seems to have had as positive an impact on the body mass index as it has the totty total.

And the council has recently installed these strange contraptions in the park:

 Medieval instruments of torture maybe? 

Cruel children's playthings that tempt but are impossible to play on?

Neither. They're part of an out-door gym, and they've proved very popular. I've even seen the eastern European males pause from their daily consumption of industrial quantities of vodka to have a go. (Their female counterparts are all hard at work by day in the local produce packing factories.) And I've actually seen people queueing to get on to the equipment! Which begs the question, if obesity is something you can 'catch' by keeping obese company, maybe fitness and general health improves when you see other people exercising.

If anyone wants me to do some empirical research I'd be more than happy. I've always quite fancied a PhD, and I'm in a good position - from my study - to do some field observations.

But before we get carried away, what do you think of the original research? Can people 'catch' a high BMI? Could obesity really be infectious? Or is the whole thing a load of academic nonsense? I'd be more than happy to hear what you think. Especially if you're bringing the biscuits.


  1. I think people are influenced in their health/exercise/eating habits by those around them, perhaps sometimes on an unconscious level. Genetic inclinations aside, as adults we are responsible for our own destinies to a large extent and we shouldn't forget this and blame or explain our high BMI as something we have merely caught. Too much passing the buck I fear.

  2. You've got a point Tanya. And I suppose knowing that what you see might influence your behaviour at least gives the option of more control. In theory, anyway!

  3. I hope it's not infectious - my train is already full of people who, let's say, 'look content' and I've been working relatively hard to rid myself of the beer belly of late. Have you seen how narrow some train aisles are?!

  4. Thanks for stopping by my blog. :) I hope you like what you read.

    On the other hand, as far as your post goes...I agree with Tanya in that there is a certain amount of influence from our surroundings and the people we spend time with, but ultimately it is our choice how we care for our own bodies. I think we need to be aware of what kind of influence we're allowing others to have on us.

  5. As some-one who was once as thin as Kate middleton has lately become I'd be interested to know if i caught my plumpness and if there is some equivalent of an antibiotic that would restore me to me former state!Well,not quite that as I was too thin.There is evidence that premature babies are thin until midlife and then are likely to become much fatter and to be at risk of diabetes.This is true of me and my husband.I was so small and thin as a samll child it seemed to infuriate my mother and was the start of a rather difficult relationship.If she can see me now she will be very surprised!Hello,Mam!

  6. And they're getting narrower all the time Tom... just like the waistband of my trousers keeps shrinking.

    That's a telling phrase lladybug - '... what kind of influence we're allowing others to have on us.' Spot on!

    That's a fascinating point Kate - I had no idea of the correlation between thin babies and increased risk of diabetes. Thanks for sharing that.

  7. Is the inverse also true? If I look at pictures of Kate Moss will it put me off food for life?

  8. Do you want to give it a try, Steve? I'll watch...

  9. I don't think you can 'catch' obesity, but I do believe that living within an obese 'lifestyle' can be somewhat of an influence.

    After all some aspects of healthy eating and living are learned behaviours, either from parents, siblings or peers.

    Herding Cats x

  10. True enough HC, and I rather think that's what the researchers believed too, using 'caught' as a 'catchy' was of grabbing attention (no pun intended).

  11. I think people are influenced by those around them in as much as it 'normalises' overeating, inactivity and the resulting obesity. That said I also think that if this is the case it is yet another indication of peoples lack of backbone in terms of being unwilling or unable to take control of themselves. Surely the blame culture hasn't spread this far :-/

  12. I hope not, Louise. And I think you're right, inasmuch as it's probably just 'learnt' behaviour. After all, it does seems to 'run' in certain families

  13. I certainly think that if the 'norm' surrounding a person is obesity, then it's easy to lose sight of a healthy diet and what a healthy shape can be, along the lines of 'well, compared to him/her, I really look OK...'. Interestingly, since I arrived in Russia I lost weight, mainly because the bodyshape here is so different to back home (I still can't compete, but it's all about perception!). Also, the outdoor gyms you mention are par for the course in Moscow and eleswhere I've visited in russia. Not quite as shiny and new, obviously, and no doubt far less in line with health and safety measures, but still, they are there. Hmmm - you may have inspired a post - either that or I fill up your inbox with this comment...

  14. I do hope not, I am fat, but MadDad and the boys are not in anyway. I hate to make it sound like an excuse, but it is down to the medications I take, however, it doesnt stop people judging me when I have the very occasional slice of cake or chocolate.

    I love the idea of an outdoor gym, the boys have mini gym equpment at school and love it and for some children it is the only excercise they get.

  15. Oh no, go for the post PM... with pics of the Russian version of the outdoor gym, perhaps? With you trying out the equipment? Interesting what you say about the difference in body shape, too. That really is so strikingly clear in the case of the migrant population round here.

    It seems a small thing for the council to do - but unbelievably effective (the outdoor gym, that is). And I wonder how much money it'll ultimately save the NHS, Jen?


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